The XX Factor

New Research Shows That Men Feel Insecure When Their Partners Succeed, But Women Don’t

Reese Witherspoon poses with her Oscar and then-husband Ryan Phillippe after the 2006 Academy Awards. Just sayin.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

From the annals of how sexist stereotypes hurt men, too: New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that heterosexual men are more threatened by their partner’s success than women are. In fact, “more threatened” is underselling the findings, as it turns out that women’s self-esteem isn’t hurt at all by knowing their partner is good at something when they’re not. The researchers ran a bunch of different studies to measure explicit and implicit self-esteem and how it was affected by a partner’s successes and failures. As Julie Beck at the Atlantic explains, the results are downright depressing:

It didn’t seem to matter to men what the circumstances of their girlfriends’ success was. Whether the success was social or intellectual, whether it related to the boyfriend’s failure or was just something the woman achieved independent of anything the boyfriend did, the men still tended to feel worse about themselves when their girlfriends succeeded. This only goes for implicit (subconscious) self-esteem, though—men didn’t explicitly report feeling worse about themselves, whether because they didn’t consciously notice or because they didn’t want to portray themselves as insecure jerks, we cannot say.

The study is blessedly free of speculation about how this must be a hard-wired trait developed in our hunter-gatherer days, and instead floats the far more likely suggestion that men have absorbed gender stereotypes that portray men as inherently smarter and more capable than women:

There are at least two other reasons why thinking about a partner’s success might lead to decreased implicit self-esteem for men. One is that positive self-evaluation derives in part from fulfilling roles typically ascribed to one’s gender (Josephs et al., 1992). There are strong gender stereotypes where men are typically associated with strength, competence, and intelligence; a partner’s success, especially if it is construed as an own failure, is not compatible with the stereotype and could negatively impact self-esteem. Men portray themselves as being more competent than they actually are (Paulhus & John, 1998); being reminded of a time that their partner was successful might pose a threat to their own view of themselves, thus lowering their implicit self-esteem. 

The researchers also found that women felt optimistic about the future of their relationships when a partner had a success, and men felt pessimistic. This, the authors of the study speculate, is related to the sexist belief that a man must always be the stronger partner, leading men to possibly fear that their female partners will want to trade up for someone better. (It would be interesting to see a similar study of gay couples.)

It’s obvious why these findings are troubling for women, and not just because women don’t want to worry that their partners are secretly begrudging them professional successes, poker winnings, and accomplishments in pub trivia. The results also might speak to the roots of some domestic abuse, as men who have the greatest need to “win” the relationship could be more motivated to undermine and control their partners. (The study isn’t suggesting this—I am.) But these findings should also be troubling to men. Feeling insecure and competitive with your partner is no way to live. The researchers suggest that these kinds of feelings might be mediated by relearning how to think about gender roles, i.e. becoming more feminist. So add one more study to a growing pile that shows that feminism, despite conservative claims to the contrary, is actually good for couples and for harmony between the sexes.